It’s high time Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker, the core of Cincinnati crust-stained yet dreamy jangle-pop heroes Wussy, get uttered in the same breath as holier-than-thou lady/dude combos like John Doe & Exene, Ira & Georgia, Mac & Laura, and Thurston & Kim. The rough-and-tumble, whiny disposition of the dirtbaggy, bearded Cleaver combines with the super-sweetness of the sublimely voiced Walker to create emotive, gritty poptones. Wussy is beloved by many a rock scribe and certainly don’t mind the props, but with their most recent LP (the excellent Strawberry) and a tour on deck, the band is quite ready to shake the “critic’s band” tag.
Sound of the City spoke to the jovial Cleaver and Walker as they prepped for tour in their hometown.
How are you guys?
Chuck Cleaver: We have a nature program on, so we’re good.
Lisa Walker: It’s about the Himalayas and it’s on PBS.
Is that the program of choice for Wussy?
Walker: Actually… uh, yeah. Pretty much. [laughs] We like PBS, nature shows and documentaries.
Cleaver: … And NASCAR, of course.
Walker: Oh, no! Not NASCAR! [laughs] But possibly stock car or tractor pull. That would not be out of the question.
Were you floored that Robert Christgau is such a huge supporter of your band?
Walker: We were, at first but now we’re more used to it. It still floors us, I think…
Cleaver: Always. I used to read the guy in Creem when I was a kid in the early ’70s and stuff. So the idea of somebody I used to read and actually follow would write about me is just pretty weird.
Walker: It’s surreal, that’s for sure.
Christgau had two of your albums in his top 10 of 2011.
Cleaver: Yeah, I know. The one higher up on his list took us about eight hours to make…
Walker: … and none of us listen to that one.
Cleaver: We don’t even really like it. [Laughing]
Walker: Well actually, we’ll listen to the ones that we did in the studio; the ones that we kinda labored over. This because, as you make it, you listen to it a lot and there’s some joy in looking at the finished product. But I don’t think any of us listen to the acoustic one. I haven’t been able to get through it. [Laughing]
Christgau has been into Wussy since you started the band, right?
Cleaver: Pretty much.
Walker: He actually sorta made it possible for us to do what we are doing now, in a way, just because he kind of opened the door for other writers. Other people read him (Christgau) and started paying attention and it really brought us, in a very small way, to an international audience. Which is pretty cool, when you’re stuck in Ohio. [Laughing]
Chuck, was he a fan of your old band, Ass Ponys?
Walker: I think. [To Chuck] Wasn’t he?
Cleaver: Yeah, yeah. I remember seeing positive reviews and stuff. It seems so.
Has Christgau been to any of your shows?
Walker: Oh, once.
Cleaver: I think he was at the Cake Shop…
Walker: …it was actually the same show the Village Voice did a review on a couple years ago, and also somebody from Rolling Stone. It was weird because we looked out [from the stage] right before we started to play and there was nobody there. Like, nobody. We tuned, we looked up and there were like 70 people in the room who just appeared. It was almost like South by Southwest when there’s showcases and people kid of run from one thing to the other. We don’t play in New York very much so we were too familiar with that phenomenon there. We looked out and half of them had notebooks in their hands.
So is Wussy a “critic’s band?”
It feels like with Strawberry you’re going beyond that.
Cleaver: We hope so. Being a critic’s band is better than not being one, I guess. But, it would be kinda nice…
Walker: …it would be nice if I didn’t have to ask people what side they wanted with, you know, their sandwich. Not that I’m not fine doing that. But when that happens, like when we’re playing music more for a living than like going to our restaurant jobs and things like that, I think that will make us feel we’ve maybe graduated to the next level, ya know? We’re actually fine with being a critic’s band and we’re fine with working our regular jobs, for now, ya know? But I guess that would be kind of a goal, for now.
Cleaver: We don’t talk about stuff like that too much. But [to Lisa] you’re right. That’s kind of a goal, I guess.
Since all of you have day jobs, is Wussy a kind of thing like “when all of you have time to rehearse, write songs, record and tour” type of situation?
Walker: The way that we do it is… actually, we are pretty fortunate because our location allows us to travel on weekends and get out there without having to take a week off from work a few times a year. Just our proximity to so many cities in the Midwest, south and the east cost is pretty good and then where we record is down the street from where we live. Three of the four of us live within walking distance of like two blocks and then the fourth one is just a few miles up the street. It’s really easy for us, say after work, to go in and record for a few hours. We’re a little frazzled maybe but it’s kind of 50/50. We can’t quit our day jobs yet but we’ve kinda made it so that we have two jobs now: we have the band and then we have to pay the bills.
Are you hometown heroes in Cincinnati?
Walker: Hmmm… no. [Laughing]
Cleaver: Nooo… To a certain crowd, yeah, we are.
Walker: I don’t want to undercut anyone, but there’s been some people here who’ve been really, really good to us and I do appreciate that. But finally, after ten years for being together, finally the local, like, Triple-A radio station is playing our record, like really heavily—and heavily is like KEXP in Seattle. But before, we were only getting airplay in the South, [and on the] west and east coasts and we weren’t really getting airplay around here. But that’s starting to change. People here aren’t very fly-by-night with what they like.
Cleaver: Some of them are…
Walker: …some of them are, but I think on a whole once they like something, they love it but it might kinda take a while.
Is there a regular stomping ground in Cincinnati where you guys play?
Cleaver: Yeah, yeah. There’s one in our neighborhood, The Northside Tavern, that we play quite a bit, actually. Lately, we haven’t been playing as much here because, you know, we are trying to create a “mystique.”
Walker: [laughs] With the time off that we do have to play, we are trying to actually get out of [Cincinnati] instead of just playing around here.
How long have both of you been living in Cincinnati?
Cleaver: I’ve been here since 1977.
Walker: I haven’t been here that long. I moved here in 1999.
How does the songwriting process go with Wussy?
Cleaver: A little of everything. Lisa brings in something or I bring in a skeleton of a song and then everybody else just piles on top of it. Some things do come about out through jamming or whatever. We are starting to arrange more and actually talk about things more. You have to repeat ourselves to a certain extent for people to stay interested because you have to somehow stay grounded to the thing that you are. But at the same time, we try to change a little bit with every record, if we can. We don’t talk about it; it sorta happens.
John Curley of the Afghan Whigs recorded Strawberry?
Cleaver: Actually, all of our records have been. We’ve worked with John on everything but the first record. I’ve been working with him for, like, 30 years. We did most of the Ass Ponys records with John, too.
Walker: He’s kind of another member of the band during recording season. Not officially, but John is sorta an advisor on recording and a new records’ promotion and artwork. Then during we have another person who’s been playing with us live which is John Erhardt, who was the original Ass Ponys guitarist. He’s been playing pedal steel.
Cleaver: John plays with a lot of effects and stuff. He’s sorta like the Sun Ra Arkestra.
So you’re adding a free jazz sensibility into Wussy?
Walker: Let’s call it free noise.
The Afghan Whigs are reuniting and playing some shows, huh?
Walker: That’s what I’ve heard. John’s a good friend, but I didn’t really know about [the Whigs] until their time had come and gone.
Cleaver: I like Up in It a lot.
Walker: That’s the one I have.
Cleaver: Wussy recorded a cover of… what was it?
Walker: It was “Retarded”
Cleaver: It actually turned out pretty good. They have a lot of weird time signatures and stuff. We tend to be a lot simpler. [laughs] Our label did a Whigs tribute thing but I think we’re going to put it on something else, on a B-side or something.
The music coming out of Ohio seems to be on the up and up.
Walker: There’s actually a lot going on in Ohio. In Akron…
Cleaver: … Columbus, too.
Walker: There’s several different musical scenes going on right now in Cincinnati that are pretty strong. There are people from here who are doing pretty well.
Do you feel part of a scene, or are you separated from that?
Walker: No, we’re not separated. We’re definitely… you can’t get out of it unless you live outside of the city, I guess.
Cleaver: The people who put themselves outside of it are just dicks but…
Walker: [laughs] That is sorta how it’s worked out here. I don’t get to shows as much as I’d like but I think, in all, people are friendly with each other. To some extent, everyone sorta knows each other around here. I think the scene is pretty healthy here. It’s kinda a well kept secret. I think people don’t mind that it stays a secret because we don’t want a bunch of assholes moving in…
Cleaver: … we already have’em now…
Walker: … we already have enough, the rent is really cheap and we like it that way. [laughs] Where we live is a lot like Brooklyn plus Mayberry. You can live comfortable here without making a ton of money…
Cleaver: [Laughing] … We’ve all kinda proven that.
Walker: To a lot of people I know, if you’re looking at being in a band because you love to play music—which is why we’re all doing it—and it’s not about…
Cleaver: … any kind of financial gain.
Walker: People play music here because they love to do it. It’s their outlet. When you live here, you have the free time to do that—have a family, have a job and you can go play in a band.
Lisa, when you met Chuck, did you know him from Ass Ponys?
Walker: Not really. I’d certainly heard of them, but I became familiar with their music because I got to know Chuck and his friends. We were starting to work together so I was really interested in where he was coming from and his musical background. So, I started with Lohio and Some Stupid with a Flare Gun. They’re my favorites because those are the first two I heard.
Chuck, did you grow up on Cleveland punk?
Cleaver: No, I grew up an hour north of Cincinnati and I didn’t move down here ’til I went to college when I was 18. But I used to come to the city every once in a while to buy records and stuff. The town I’m from was about maybe 200 people and I was the only one within maybe, jeez, a hundred miles, who was actually listening to the Residents and Johnny Thunders. I had their Pere Ubu’s early singles. They would come down to Cincinnati occasionally when I was in college and play some of the clubs out here. I had a couple of the first Devo records.
Walker: …And your dad would bring home Afrobeat.
Cleaver: My factory worker dad, from the middle of nowhere, for some reason, really dug Afrobeat.
Walker: I think I can actually speak for everyone in the band when I say we all actually love that kind of schmaltzy Carole King, Todd Rundgren, ya know, the easy listening but well written stuff.
Cleaver: We don’t love all of it…
Walker: …well, not all of it.
Cleaver: Well, Air Supply blows…
Walker: …well, Air Supply does blow. But, anyway. One thing that binds us all together and that keeps us awake when we are driving in a van is that everyone in the band is a major music nerd. We just love music, pop music. We grew up that way. All four of us grew up like little kids, pop obsessed and taping songs off the radio. None of us read music, though. Mark [Messerly, bass/keyboards] might, but we don’t know.
How did the two of you originally meet and start playing together? I’ve read Chuck was playing some solo shows…
Walker: That’s how it started—the idea of playing together. We were at the same show and you (to Chuck) didn’t know the words and I had learned one of his songs…
Cleaver: …I wrote some words on a napkin and said to Lisa “Follow along,” and we got up in front of people, we sang and it sounded good. [Laughing]
How long was that after Ass Ponys broke up?
Cleaver: We hadn’t broken up yet; we were still together [in 2001]. For me, [Ass Ponys] had run its course. I loved playing with those guys but I was just kinda done with it. Lisa just happened to come along at a moment when I needed to do something else.
Walker (to Chuck): You kinda wanted the opportunity to not be the only front person.
Cleaver: Exactly. I’ve never have been a really comfortable front person and Lisa is really natural front person. I like sorta standing off to the side sometimes and not being the focus.
Chuck, do you not like playing live?
Cleaver: I do now. It took me a long, long time to be confortable playing live. In early bands I was in pre-Ass Ponys, I just kinda wanted to be the rhythm guitarist and the writer and have another person sing. But I never found another person to sing the stuff the way I wanted it sung. So, I sorta became a singer by default.
Walker: Like Phil Collins! [Laughing]
Cleaver: I will say that I’m a much better singer…
Walker: …than Phil Collins?!
Cleaver: Well, yeah. Dying geriatrics sing better than Phil Collins. I’m just a better singer since I’ve been singing with [Lisa]. I pay more attention to things like being on key. I never used to think about that stuff. I would just sorta wail, as the first couple of Ass Ponys records prove, I was actually probably off key more than I was on. But I’m better than I used to be. Lisa can sing with anybody and she’s sings with me so I consider that I’m very lucky.
Do you look to other girl/guy groups that you admire for inspiration?
Cleaver: Not that we’ve ever done it consciously.
Walker: When I see bands like Pixies or Superchunk or something, I feel a certain “Awww.” I think of Superchunk, because they’re in a similar situation that we have. [Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance] used to be a couple, and now they’re friends and that’s how we operate, too. When things weren’t so good [with Chuck], I remember kind of looking at them and thinking—I mean, I don’t know them—they’re an example like “They’re still band, they figured it out so why can’t we?” I think also Southern Culture on the Skids…
Cleaver: We know them, sort of…
Walker: …well, [we don’t] “know them,” but [they’re] friends of friends. Some friends of ours know them and when we were going through kind of dark times they were like “These guys figured it out, so… ” We are best friends.
Cleaver: Actually, we haven’t been a couple for five years or longer. It’s been a while. I mean, they said we were married in Rolling Stone. [laughs] We’re better at being friends than we were at being a couple. You just basically have to swallow hard and think “If you like somebody well enough to exist as a couple with’em then you have to try to figure out when you’re not a couple anymore, how, you know, to be friends.” Why wouldn’t you be? Plus we work really well together. We never talk about this stuff. We just do it. And it works. We did have some really rough patches but we’ve always gotten through it somehow.
Chuck, Ass Ponys were on a major label.
Cleaver: Yeah, yeah. We were on A & M.
Did you guys get swept up in the post-Nirvana splurge… ?
Cleaver: … then they got a good look at us and realized we were like ten or fifteen year older than Nirvana and we all sort of dumpy and uncooperative. [laughs] It was like “Woops. We picked the wrong guys.” Our first A & M record did all right with “Little Bastard” and we did a couple of movies, made a little bit of money and we got to tour and stuff. It was great. I enjoyed it. I also knew that it wasn’t gonna last. My head was not in the clouds. I knew they were gonna figure out that they picked a bunch of like Ohio mutants. [laughs] For the while it lasted, it was quite fun. We met a lot of people and got to tour with some pretty cool bands. The first time we flew out there after the record was out, we were on Hollywood Boulevard and there’s a billboard and Barry White’s on one side and we’re on the other and it’s huge. It was like, “Guess which side will be successful?”
Wasn’t “Little Bastard” an MTV hit?
Cleaver: Yeah, yeah. It debuted on 120 Minutes. Bettie Serveert were the announcers that night and one of guys called me “Chook Cleaver,” because they’re Danish, I guess. I used to have it on tape somewhere. It was unbelievable. We were on the original Jon Stewart Show when he had that nighttime thing. (David) Schwimmer was on with us because Friends had just started and no one knew who he was. Yeah, we hit the big time. [laughs]
How’s it being on Shake It Records?
Cleaver: [Shake It’s owner] is our patron saint. Without him, we would not have been able to put out nearly as many records as we have. We would have eventually put out a couple probably but he just allowed us to do out thing and not get in the way. The entire Shake It organization has always been really supportive and good to us.
Wussy plays Cake Shop Saturday, March 3 with Versus.